#16 - The Asian "Tigers" - from Korea to Malaysia, a new lease of life for capital?

Apr 1994


Over the past ten to fifteen years phrases such as "labour costs", "unit costs", "output per head", etc.. have invaded the official vocabulary, from ministers' speeches to company notices and tabloid headlines. This, in the name of an all too familiar blackmail directed at workers - that jobs hinge on competitivity and that competitivity hinges on lower wages, longer hours and worse conditions. The same logic was used to back all the anti-working class legislation introduced in the same period, from the disbanding of wages councils to the severance of social benefits for young workers and to the straightjacket imposed on the right to strike. And the same logic is used by those who oppose the introduction of a minimum wage for all workers or the reduction of retirement age.

The main, in fact the sole evidence that politicians and employers can produce to support this logic is the alleged success story of the South-East Asian countries known as the Asian Tigers. Ironically, the model which used to be offered to the British working class by Thatcher's aides back in the early 80s, was Japan. Alas, over the past few years Japan itself has been embroiled in crisis after crisis, and now looks to be heading for a recession probably as bad as that in Western Europe. Hence the recent shift to the model of the so-called Tigers.

Are the glossy growth figures reported year after year for South East Asia the statistical image of an economic "miracle"? Are the Asian Tigers going to take the world economic lead from the hands of the old industrial powers, just as the USA took over from Britain after World War I, as an over-zealous Financial Times columnist wrote earlier this year? And are they the living proof that, despite a quarter of a century of nearly continuous crisis in the world's economy, despite tens of million workers being forced into idleness and poverty in the rich countries, capitalism has some kind of a future, after all?

The murky waters that leaked from the Pergau dam scandal would, however, point to the opposite conclusion, namely that the Tigers are little more than the domestic pets of the old imperialist order and that they are no pointer to a future for capitalism but rather further evidence of the on-going progress of its terminal disease. Not only are they the children of the capitalist crisis, they are malformed or even in some cases stillborn; in any case unviable and affected by the same illness as their parents from their very birth. The stormy relationship between Britain and Malaysia is only a small aspect of the saga. The Tigers have a much longer story to tell.

Who are the Asian Tigers?

The top-league is made of six specimens - South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Hong Kong. But only the first three belong to the real world. Brunei is nothing but a pocket-size princely state where the ruling family was lucky enough to find massive reserves of oil. And the last two are mere historical accidents, comparable in size to Greater Birmingham in the case of Singapore and to the southern half of Greater London in the case of Hong Kong. It is therefore hardly meaningful to compare them to fully-fledged countries. Hong Kong's whole existence in particular is entirely tied into the rivalries between imperialist powers to capture Chinese trade. Its integration into China, scheduled for 1997, will wipe this one "success story" out of history to become part of the history of China's tiny privileged layer.

As to the rest of the family - the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Laos, in decreasing order according to their links with the world market - they would be best described as aspiring Tigers cubs, maybe.

The growls of the main Asian "tigers" have been giving capitalists all over the world goosebumps since the early eighties. And their flesh is still crawling given the continuing high growth rates of these countries. It is enough to make any self-repecting Western entrepreneur look East and drool enviously...

While the old imperialist countries of the West and even Japan were growing at rates of 3 or 4% at best, while the economies of many African and Latin American countries were receding, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia kept up average economic growth of 9% at least per year throughout the eighties and despite a small drop in 1985/86, they are still outstripping the growth rates of all the old industrialised world.

Today the annual domestic product per head of population in South Korea is £3,800 and that of Taiwan £4,800. These figures bring them into the Western European league slightly above Portugal and Greece, but of course still over 50% below Britain.

How did this happen? Money begets money, they say and the money flowed in from the West and Japan in order to multiply... The total direct investment stock from rich countries into Asia trebled over the past decade to over £60bn.

And of course this growth must express itself in an export economy, as the economic experts are so fond of pointing out. Hong Kong and Singapore both exported 50% more manufacturing products per head than West Germany by 1989.

It is now fairly common to see Hyundai and Proton cars on our British steets - made in South Korea and Malaysia. Ship-building contracts are "lost" to companies in South Korea. Microwaves, computers, Samsung electronic goods pour into the Western markets - and are probably as good as any of the IBMs, Olivettis and Sonys on which they are cloned or even from which they are subcontracted. Korea ranks third in the world in the production of consumer electronics and sixth in electronic production as a whole. By the mid-eighties it was the third largest exporter of textiles after Italy and Germany.

High rise buildings and opulence in Singapore rival Beverley Hills. The slums seem to have disappeared overnight. Huge housing developments have appeared instead. There is no litter, there are no beggars nor homeless people in cardboard boxes to be seen. Modern airports, underground systems and huge bridges - also unrivalled in their engineering - are features of these new cities. Seoul, capital of South Korea even hosted the Olympic games. These are modern boom countries with state of the art infrastructure, steel and glass skyscrapers which have been been soaring into the clouds with no Prince Charles to stop them in the name of carbuncles...

And if you want to fly there by Malaysian Airlines, first or business class of course, a chauffeur-driven limosine will pick you up free of charge within a 40-mile radius of Heathrow and take you to the airport where you will be able to enjoy a special "Golden Lounge" with showers, slumberette seats, TV's, fax machines, the lot. That's even before you get on the plane where your meals will be served on fine china along with champagne...while you make last minute contact with your office on cordless in-flight phones... Once you reach Kuala Lumpur, there will be a luxury hotel waiting with its own health club, business centre and 24-hour coffee house. The subtropical paradise for capital then awaits, where money grows on the mahogany trees and tiger cubs may leap out from behind the rubber plants before you have time to say "Pergau Dam".

Imperialism's kittens with stripes painted on?

How did these tigers get their stripes? Did they have to start from scratch? Who supplied their claws?

Singapore, part of British Malaysia, had been the most important strategic base in the region from 1819, when the British East India Company established its headquarters there. It was the guardian of the Jahor and Singapore Straits - the gateway to China and the opium trade. Retaining this island gave Britain total control of sea and later air routes to the whole of South East Asia.

Then came the development of imperialist Japan. Taiwan was annexed in 1895, then the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1900 and Korea in 1910. A regional division of labour was worked out by the new empire. Manchuria, with its enormous mineral reserves, would provide the emerging Japanese industry with the raw materials it lacked. Fertile Taiwan and Korea would become Japan's main providers of agricultural products while coal-rich Northern Korea would be used as a secondary location for Japan's heavy industries. Besides, thanks to an anti-Russian pact with Britain, Japan also had access to mines in Malaysia and raw materials in Burma and Indonesia to provide iron, tin and oil. So, in the four decades up to World War II, Japan built infrastructure to support their exploitation in Korea and Taiwan, just as Britain did in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. Harbour facilities were built, together with a network of roads and railways and even a few power plants.

The Second World War however proved the real turning point for the region. Being former Japanese colonies, both Korea and Taiwan were occupied by US troops just as Japan itself was. In China, Mao Tse-tung's nationalist uprising was progressing fast, while Russian troops were already in Northern Korea. This turned South East Asia into the frontline of the USA's new Cold War policy.

South Korea became the main logistical base for all American troops in the region. While Taiwan, which the US navy could easily protect, was chosen to become the last bastion of the defeated regime of the Chinese dictator, Chiang Kai-shek. South Korea became a highly militarised society, run by the army, while Taiwan was occupied by Chiang Kai-shek's army and police and by the corrupt apparatus of Chiang's old party, the Kuomintang. With them, many of the wealthy and privileged who were fleeing Mao's regime settled in Taiwan with their coffers full.

Throughout the periods of the Korean and Vietnam wars, both countries were the USA's cherished allies in its so-called "crusade" against communism and their privileged food and equipment suppliers, as well as the vacation base for the US soldiers. In any case the Cold War resulted in billions of dollars being poured into both countries. Between 1945 and 1978, the US pumped $6bn in economic aid into South Korea alone - almost as much as the total aid provided over the same period to all the African countries put together. By the 1950's, more than 80% of all South Korean imports were financed by US aid. Meanwhile Taiwan was, from 1951 to 1965, the beneficiary of $1.5bn US aid and in addition, military aid. This combined to finance 95% of its trade deficit in the 1950's.

The enormous subsidies earned by both countries throughout the '50's and '60's and in the case of Taiwan, the massive flight of capital away from China, probably provided the main base for their growth. A stroke of luck maybe, but one which was paid for dearly by the whole region including by the popluation of these countries, for whom the cost has been several decades of military dictatorship.

Seeking a way out of poverty

The main problem for all of these regimes, most of which were newly independent ex-colonies, was how they were to develop an economy that would generate wealth for the local privileged layers. US subsidies started to dry up from the late 50's. The end of the Vietnam war meant that their economies no longer had the boost of orders and supplies. They had to look to different strategies. This led to an attempt to replace imports with locally produced commodities in the 50s and 60s.

In Korea, this began between 1953 and 1960 through heavy state subsidisation of the economy, protectionism against imports and limits on credit. This provided a secure internal market to allow the development of state-subsidised conglomerates - the so-called "chaebols". Then at the beginning of the sixties, having taken this strategy to its limits, and still not managed to develop an adequate local technology, the government switched its tactics. They devalued the currency by as much as 95% in order to attract foreign investment - on the basis of extremely low production costs - towards their mainly light industry. Any export industry was offered further state subsidies, tax incentives, and the right to sell goods on the domestic market at vastly inflated prices.

Hong Kong and Singapore followed a similar pattern of development. Except that having been little more than harbour cities with the historical role of intermediaries in the export/import business of British imperialism, they had neither capital nor markets of their own. Already dependent almost entirely on their relationship with the West, they did not go through a stage of attempting to develop industry for import substitiution.

Singapore had been forced out of newly independent Malaysia due to political conflicts with the Malay Nationalist government. Without natural resources, even having to import its drinking water, its only asset was the cheap labour of its population. It therefore opened its doors to foreign capital and proceeded to create an environment in which this capital could flourish. It imposed very few limits on the flow of capital in or out of the island. This undoubtedly made Singapore a very attractive enclave for foreign finance.

Malaysia provides another example of the turn to export-led growth. Up to the late 70s, Malaysian exports remained largely raw materials, timber, iron, tin and oil. Malaysian industry was not developing at all and government policy had made investment by foreign capital relatively unattractive due to high protectionism. In 1981, when he took office as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed announced a "Look East" policy which was meant to promote rapid industrialisation like in Korea. Really it meant "Look West" and "Look to Japan" as the industrialisation was to be funded by attracting foreign investment; allowing these foreign capitalists majority shares in any company provided there was an element of technology transfer involved. Because of low prices for raw materials such as tin, iron and particularly oil, it made sense for Japan to increasingly invest in plants in countries which were suffering under the economic recession of the early eighties. They started moving small and medium sized factories for unskilled assembly work into Malaysia.

Tigers or dragons?

How successful is the Tigers' industrialisation? Or to put it another way, can the key to economic strength lie with low labour costs? After all the capitalist class is not all that stupid. Were low labour costs enough to be on the winning side in the international trade war, the capitalists would have stopped investing in technological advance a long time ago and the American economy, which is in the world's top league as far as labour costs are concerned, would be all but defunct by now instead of being still by far the world's most powerful economy.

Today's dominance by the American economy of the world market is based on its ability to lay down the law for both trade partners and competitors. But were the American economy dependent on others to provide for its basic industrial needs - such as steel for its automobile and aerospace industries or sophisticated chemicals for its pharmaceutical industry, for instance - it would be in no position to lay down that law. The development of a heavy industry is therefore one of the key ingredients of economic power on the capitalist world market.

Yet this is precisely where the Tigers fail. Light industries, if not the mere assembly of parts manufactured elsewhere, remain the principal industrial activity in all these countries. Only South Korea can claim to have some form of heavy industry. But even then, despite enormous funding for its brand new steel industry for instance, it was never able to capture even a small chunk of the world's steel market. What is more, South Korea remains dependent on Japanese imports for almost every one of the more sophisticated kinds of metal required for example, to produce machine tools, aircrafts or oil rigs.

By and large, the Tigers' industries were built piecemeal through successive attempts at taking the opportunity of the circumstantial ups and downs of the world market. Their ability to find an adequate response at the right time allowed them to grow, but it also shaped them. They developed only in the slots left open for them by the world's main industrial powers, but hardly in any other sphere. And as was shown time and again, the smallest pressure put on them by the old industrialised countries often resulted in devastating consequences for them.

The degree of this dependence was highlighted recently by the Pergau dam deal. It showed how, in order to obtain the "trickle down" of the kind of technical aid it needs for developing basic electricity production, the Malaysian government had to repay Britain with big arms contracts worth several times as much as the dam itself. And even then the Pergau dam turned out to be ill-adapted to the actual needs of the country, threatening an ecological disaster for the environment and a social disaster for the population who would be displaced as a result. But the Pergau dam must have been seen as a damned good deal by GEC, Balfour Beatty and the handful of other British conglomerates which were meant to build it. Just as the arms deal was a hell of a good bargain for Britain's death merchants. Here, even a minor industrial power like Britain was in a position to lay down the law to Malaysia so that British companies could get fat and perhaps some Malaysian contractors and their representatives in government could get a little plump...

The Proton saga

But then, the Tigers' enthusiasts argue, hasn't Malaysia developed its own car industry - the Proton car project - just like the big players on the world market? Indeed it has, but the saga of Proton's development is highly instructive as to the alleged industrial leverage of the Tigers.

"Proton" is actually the acronym for "National Automobile Industry Ltd" in Malay. The context of the development of this Malaysian car, is the attempt by competing Japanese and US car companies to gain more control of the South East Asian car industries. Mitsubishi Motor Corporation, (MMC) part of the large Mitsubishi Corporation, was trailing the other Japanese car makers, like Toyota, Nissan and Honda, in fifth place. By the late 70's they launched a "Pacific Production Area Plan". Proton was part of this plan. Their idea was an international division of labour in which any of the final assembly plants in the Asian network could purchase the cheapest parts and components from any factory managed or associated with MMC. But the Japanese headquarters would retain the role of developing the new technology, long term planning, design, co-ordination, marketing and financial control. In MMC's plan, Malaysia was to be used for the assembly of doors. However this plan coincided with Malaysia's drive to industrialise. A deal was offered whereby MMC would build an assembly plant and the state would provide 70% of the capital - to be partly financed by a loan from Mitsubishi Bank. Proton was born.

The assembly plant was completed in 1985. In July the first car rolled off the production line. However the plant failed consistently to reach production targets and the sales were nowhere near government estimates. By 1987, Proton was accruing losses. The start up loan from Mitsubishi had to be repaid in Japanese yen - which has appreciated. Proton had to ask for the interest to be reduced. But their expenditure on parts, most of which still came from Japan or Japanese subsidiaries in Singapore etc., was also going up. The only local parts which could be supplied amounted to the exhaust systems, fuel tanks and the rubber components.

By 1988, Mahathir invited the Japanese managers of MMC to come back and take over the whole management of the plant. And this allowed a re-vamping of Proton under heavy government protectionism. An import tax on foreign cars of between 140-300% and similar tariffs on imported parts for the competing assembly plants of Nissan, Mazda and Toyota forced these plants to either close or cut production drastically. More than 5,000 car workers lost their jobs. But Proton took over the domestic market and started exporting.

By 1993, out of a total production of 102,800, (still short of the target of 120,000) 60% were exported, most to Britain. A Malaysian was once more installed as chief of the company. But most of the senior management and techical staff remain Japanese. Though the Malaysian government claims that the local content of the car is now 60%, it is hard to imagine how they work this out. An FT report in August last year said that local sourcing amounted only to radiators, fuel tanks and exhausts. There is still no engine plant to date.

Subcontractors Ltd

The fact that Proton, the showcase of Malaysia's industrialisation, turns out to be little more than a Trojan horse for Mistsubishi is not exceptional in South East Asia. The Tigers may seem to roar. But they are kept on a short leash by the American and Japanese imperialist giants, while most European companies are left to scrap over what is left of the meal. But usually, the links are not always as blatant and direct as in the case of Proton.

Therefore to picture the Asian Tigers as potential, let alone actual threats for the power of the old industrial countries, as is so often the case, is a joke. But, of course, it is a convenient cover-up for those Western companies seeking to justify job losses, increased unemployment or wage cuts.

Put in a nutshell, the Asian Tigers' "miracle" is just another development in the age-old competition between the big imperialist players. Western capitalists did not respond to the shrinking of the world market in the 70s by investing in modernisation. Instead they turned to South America and Asia for cheap labour.

American giants were first to take this step with the aim of flooding the vast American market with cheap low-range products subcontracted to South East Asian firms. Their Japanese competitors were quick to follow. They had the same goal as their American counterparts - to cut labour costs. But in addition, the over-valuation of the Japanese yen and the comprehensive US tariff system limited their access to the American market.

Korean and Taiwan, on the other hand, had no such constraints. Being highly-valued pawns in the world power game played by the USA, they enjoyed some privileges - one of them being almost tariff-free access to the American market. So the Japanese giants stepped in to take over as much as they could of the new commercial flow. While the American giants provided most of the finance, their Japanese counterparts concentrated on trying to supply the new industrial subcontractors with machinery, semi-finished products and technology. Since they could not enter the American market openly, Korean VCR's and Taiwanese home-computers would do it, using Japanese technology and equipment. In addition, imperialist giants took over much of the commercial side of the process, overseeing the export of the goods to the richer markets.

From a peak of about 45% in the mid-80s, the direct dependence of Korea and Taiwan on the American market for exports has now been reduced to slightly over 30%. This dependence, however, remains overwhelming when it comes to the younger Tigers. ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, provides a blatant and extreme case of this dependence. It groups together Malaysia, Singapore, the tiny oil-rich princely state of Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Set up in 1967, allegedly as a means to promote regional collaboration, ASEAN is more accurately described as an embryonic regional machinery inspired and overseen by the USA. From 1977 onwards extensive formal structures were set up, including an annual top ministerial conference attended by a US Secretary of State. These governmental structures were complemented with a private US-ASEAN Business Council to promote US-ASEAN trade and to reduce protectionist barriers against US imports.

Ten years later, this tight US-ASEAN relationship came to fruition. By far the largest part of all debts from the ASEAN countries, both public and private, were held by US lenders - up to 90% in the case of the Philippines. ASEAN manufacturing exports had become overwhelmingly dependent on the American market, to the tune of 70% in the case of Malaysia. Today, return on investment for US companies operating in ASEAN is said to reach almost 50% a year. In 1993, over one-third of the profits earned worldwide by the US oil giant Mobil came from ASEAN. But far from building a trade surplus with the USA as they aimed at, the ASEAN countries are now developing a trade deficit!

Big appetite but starving for ideas

Electrical and electronic appliances are usually quoted as the strong point of the Tigers. Indeed they still represent today over 35% of Korea's exports for instance. And it is often argued that, by now, the Tigers have more or less caught up with the Japanese and American giants, both in terms of production costs and technology. The reality is somewhat different.

Up to 1985, the three main Korean manufacturers of VCR's, Samsung, Daewoo and Goldstar produced under patents acquired from JVC, the Japanese manufacturer. In 1987, new technology transfers were agreed allowing Korea to produce the more sophisticated types available at the time. But this was done in the form of joint ventures with Toshiba and Hitachi, among others, resulting in actual increase in Japan's share of Korean VCR profits. By that time no less than 85% of the value of a color TV "made in Korea" came from components which had to be imported from Japan.

Korea can therefore claim a large chunk of the world's VCR production but with limited returns. Just as Singapore's status as the world's largest producer of disk drives for microcomputers is little more than gloss. Not only is the drive industry controlled by foreign manufacturers which have set up subsidiaries in Singapore, but the key components are still produced in Japan while the Singapore factories remain largely confined to assembly operations.

The most celebrated "success story" of the Tigers, that of the home computers, is probably the best example of the reality concealed behind the gloss. When, in the early 80s, IBM launched its first micro-computers, it was already a late-comer in a potential growth market. Instead of hiding behind patents, IBM chose to make it easy to copy its machines, gambling that it would cut down prices, enlarge the market and make the IBM-PC an industry standard.

Over the following decade, more IBM PC clones were manufactured in Korea, Singapore and Taiwan than anywhere else in the world and many American clone manufacturers moved to this part of the world as well. But by the end of the 80s, once the IBM-PC standard was solidly established, IBM changed tack. Using both GATT and a series of famous and costly lawsuits, they forced all clone manufacturers to pay royalties, not only on every single new IBM clone produced, but also, in some cases, on many of those produced in the past. Refusing to pay was not even an option: the consequence would have been an automatic ban from the American market. Korea, Taiwan and Singapore remained the world's largest manufacturers of home and micro-computers, but at a heavy price. Not only has over 50% of the value of each machine to be imported, mostly from Japan, but an average 65% of the profits effectively end up in Japan and the USA.

Far from becoming narrower, the technological gap between the Tigers and the rich countries has increased over the years. While the Japanese and American market leaders are willing to allow the Tigers to use their technology, at a price of course, their policy follows a constant pattern - they keep the newest technology for themselves, and therefore the more profitable top end of the market, while selling less recent patents to South-East Asia, which can only be used at the less profitable lower end of the market. In the late 80s, enormous sums devoted by Korean conglomerates to bidding for the newest memory chips only landed them with technology which was several years behind that used in the chips for which Hitachi was just starting industrial production.

This increasing technological gap is often blamed on the Tigers' lack of investment in research. Korea's largest conglomerates, for instance, spend less put together than IBM on its own. While short funding is part of the problem and reflects the limited amount of capital available in South East Asia, technological research requires more than just funding. It requires a conducive environment, in which vastly varied fields of activity provide many different sources of ideas and experimentation, and an outlook which is not constantly bound and obscured by pressure for immediate profitability - under capitalism, only the richest and most advanced economies can provide such an environment.

Punch bags for heavyweights

The Tigers may be commonly used as profit-boosting vehicles by American and Japanese corporations, but this does not mean that the Japanese and US governments are more lenient with their South East Asian subcontractors. The fact that the Tigers are allowed a few crumbs in exchange for their loyalty to imperialism does not prevent them from getting a regular caning when imperialist interests have something to gain out of it.

South-East Asian agriculture is one example of the ruthlessness of the US trade policies with its favourite partners. Since the 50s, the Tigers have been under pressure from the USA to buy American agricultural products. According to US authorities the aim was allegedly to force "undemocratic" Third World governments to feed their populations properly. This sleight of hand was and is still known as the PL-480 programme. It compelled poor countries to become dumping grounds for American agricultural surpluses or else be deprived of export contracts. American surpluses did not come for free of course. In most cases, however, they were too expensive for those who were starving. But they were cheap enough to put large numbers of local farmers out of business. Thus Korea, once Japan's main agricultural supplier, is now the world's third largest importer of US agricultural products.

The overall trade relations between imperialist countries and the Tigers are likewise based on a balance of forces which, due to the Tigers' dependence on Western markets and technology, is invariably in favour of imperialism. Until the mid-80s, the Tigers developed large trade surpluses with the USA. Then, however, the US authorities decided that it was time to shorten the leash. In part this was actually an indirect attack against Japanese competitors whose products were becoming a bit too ubiquitous in America under the Tigers' home brands. But another aim of this tightening of the screw was to ensure that a larger proportion of the Tigers' exports to the USA would be recouped by increased imports. So tariff-free entry rights were revoked for selected products and selected Tigers. In order to ensure that the Tigers' exports would be much less attractive, the USA used all their financial might to force a revaluation of the main Tigers' currencies. In 1986 the Taiwanese dollar was revalued by 40% and three years later the Korean won followed the same path with a 30% revaluation.

The consequences were spectacular for all the Tigers. In Korea for instance, in a matter of three years up to 1990, the trade surplus with the USA was reduced by over 80% and then turned into a deficit the following year. As to the US corporations which subcontracted production to the Tigers they gained in every respect: competition went down on the US market and prices went up, providing them with higher profit margins; exports to the Tigers were increased and their subcontractors were forced to reduce further their own production costs.

There were, however, other consequences for the Tigers' industries as well. Just as in the 70s, when the slowdown in world trade, and particularly American consumption had resulted in massive job cuts in South East Asia, so too did the protectionist pressures of the 80s. It is significant for instance that during the the whole of the 80s, the usual causes of strikes in Taiwan were job losses, wage cuts and unpaid wage arrears, while in Korea they were deteriorating working conditions, dismissals and - unpaid wage arrears. Such grievances are not normal features of booming economies. If they were indeed part of day-to-day life in the 80s, it certainly means that, despite their apparent regular growth, the Tigers' economies were constantly destabilised - much like the economies of any Third World country.

Not adult yet, but already ageing

Since the late 80s, the Tigers have been increasingly plagued by one of the main old-age diseases of the industrial powers - the casino economy. Huge amounts of floating capital have fled from the low interest rates and low yields on offer in the imperialist countries. In their search for a quick buck, they flooded what economists call the "emerging markets" - of which the Tigers are the main component. Within two years total sales of equities and government bonds to foreign capital increased fourfold while total sales of debt bonds increased fivefold. And within another two years the overall external debt of South East Asia increased by 22%.

The region's growing external public and private debt means, of course, more money lost for South East Asia which could have been invested elsewhere in the productive sphere. But in addition, the brute masses of capital now operating on the region's financial markets have resulted in an enormous and totally artificial boom.

In February 1990, the bubble burst in Taiwan. The frenzy on the Taiwanese stock exchange was such that on one day at least, the daily turnover was larger than that in the Tokyo and New York exchanges combined. Within a few days, the Taipeh stock market collapsed. And by early 1994 it had still not recovered with share prices stagnating at under 40% of their 1990 level.

The danger signals could have been heard and taken into account by the other Tigers had they been in a position to do anything about this threat. But what can states which are heavily endebted and hard-pressed by their creditors do? So nothing was done against the growing threat and the clouds went on accumulating. In 1993, the average increase of share and bond prices in South East Asia was 97%, or nearly five times as much as in London, thereby attracting yet more floating capital and inflating stock prices even further. Ironically, the poorer the country the more frantic was the stock market activity: thus stock prices increased two and a half times in the Philippines. In Malaysia, the poorest of the main Tigers, the daily turnover on the stock exchange increased 20 times between 1993 and February 1994. By that time, the total value of stocks based in Malaysia was the largest in South East Asia, several times larger than Malaysia's GDP, and the Financial Times hailed Malaysia as "one of the world's most exciting and volatile markets ". Volatile indeed, but while the owners of these speculative floating capitals are getting excited in their comfortable offices in New York, Tokyo or London, it is the Malaysian population which will be at the receiving end of this volatility when the bubble bursts!

Towards a new generation of tigers?

As the local capitalists suck more profits out of the working class, they take their pickings away to safer places than their own countries, mostly to the imperialist countries - showing how little they trust the future of their own "booming" economies. Among the Tigers, Singapore and Hong Kong are the biggest exporters of capital towards the imperialist countries, the former mainly in US real estate and the latter mainly in Canada. Then come the Korean chaebols which are trying hard to circumvent Europe's protectionism by building factories there. But this trend does not only affect the main Tigers.

Ironically the most important trend taking capital away from the main Tigers has its roots in what caused the Tigers' own relative growth - cheap labour. For industrialisation has generated higher standard of living and prices. Labour costs in the older Tigers are now reaching levels significantly higher than in the 80s. So that foreign as well as local companies are increasingly looking for other sources of cheap labour, among the poorer would-be tigers.

Indonesia for instance has long been a favoured playing field for American companies due to the USA's "privileged" relationship with the Indonesian dictator Suharto. But since the late 80s, this trend has increased. Today Mattel for instance plans to produce one-third of its Barbie dolls in Indonesia by 1995, for wages as low as £7 a week, while General Electric has started building Indonesia's first private power plant at a cost of £1.2bn, the largest single investment ever in the country. But it would seem that Thailand is now next in favour, with already the highest growth rate in the region.

As to South-East Asian companies, the Taiwanese have been first to lead the trend out of their own country. By 1990, Taiwanese direct investments in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia were already larger than Japan's. Meanwhile some Malaysian companies have already moved to Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka. A remarkable case is that of Korean textile. With the development of new computer-driven technology in the USA, both in the design and production of fabric and the cutting of clothes, American companies have increasingly moved fabric production back to the USA while subcontracting clothes-sewing to the Caribbean. The main casualty was the Korean textile industry - so that the large Korean companies set up clothes-sewing factories in the Caribbean as well, while slashing tens of thousands of jobs in Korea.

Judging by the enthusiasm of Western business papers for Vietnam and China, these look like their next targets once the South East Asian tigers and cubs have lost their "attractive" cheapness. Already, via Hong Kong, several million Chinese workers are slaving for Western companies in China's so-called Special Economic Zones. In Vietnam, Western companies are setting up headquarters and queuing up in the hope of getting a share of the estimated £24bn in contracts for vital basic infrastructure still lacking since the end of the Vietnam war. But there is no question there of industrialisation. Even in China in fact, the main attraction for imperialist giants is not so much its cheap labour for the time being. To quote a regional business journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review , "US companies are now looking at Asia as a market in its own right. China for instance, while still poor by almost any measure, has 16 million or so 'affluents' among its 1.2 billion population. The 'affluents', as marketeers call them, are defined as Chinese who earn the equivalent of £84 per month in Canton and £63 in Beijing and Shangaï ". Given that the cost of an average meal in MacDonald's Beijing branch represents half-a-day's work for these so-called "affluents" on £63 a month, it means that what the US companies are really aiming at is the purchasing power of only two or three million really better-offs.

Behind the free market, the looming state

Industrial growth could never have happened without a determinant role being played by the state. It has either substituted itself completely for private capital or taken all the risks on its behalf. And in so doing employed the most stringent protectionism alternating when necessary with selective lifting of barriers.

It is worth recalling what Reagan, Thatcher's best friend, said in his "State of the Union" address in 1985: "America's economic success can be repeated a hundred times by a hundred nations. Many countries in East Asia and the Pacific have few resources other than that of their own people. But through...free markets, they've soared ahead of centralised economies. " However far from being the epitome free market capitalism as Reagan and the Tory right enthused so much about in the eighties and held up as an example to us all, these new tiger countries are actually a classic case of hard-line state interventionism.

Singapore, for example, fits well Reagan's description of a country which had people as its sole resource. Unlike perhaps some of the other raw material rich South East Asian countries. And it had the highest GNP per head of all Asian countries bar Japan by 1990. It is the most celebrated example of free enterprise in South East Asia and yet a perfect example of highly centralised capitalism.

The Peoples' Action Party-led State under Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, in power since independence in 1965, pioneered incentive packages to attract foreign multinationals. The government used the so-called Central Provident Fund - financed by taxes on wages and family savings - to set up oil refineries, construct industrial parks, telecommunications and transport infrastructures. The official excuse for using this fund was that it was for public transport.

Public transport is another example of not-so-free enterprise. In 1970, the bus services were incorporated into four private companies so as to maintain competition. But since the private owners did not bother to re-invest their profits the service threatened to collapse. So the government once more intervened in 1973 and imposed a merger of the companies, reversing the privatisation, to form the Singapore Bus Services. It remained in the hands of private shareholders but management was put into the hands of government officials, mostly drafted in from the army!

In Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia, state intervention took a much more brutal form. After the military coup in South Korea in 1961, the army nationalised the banking system and by 1970, 96% of all national financial assets were controlled by the state. All foreign loans and investments were channelled by law through the state to ten designated ad hoc companies which became the leading chaebols. When the IMF put pressure on the government to loosen their tight control on the financial sphere, in the name of "liberalisation", the state sold its shares eventually in 1983, but made sure that the chaebols got their hands on most of them, giving them free access to credit facilities. Such allowances made to the chaebols amounted to direct state sponsorship.

In Taiwan, the state is the largest landowner and banker, controlling 70% of the land and almost all the banks. The state industrial sector represents 20% of total industrial production, dominating steel, oil, railways, electricity, shipbuilding and communications. Then there is the network of 50 large companies owned by the ruling party, the Kuomintang, which adds on to the state sector.

It is fitting to quote from the latest OECD report on the Tigers. "...the original interpretation of East Asian dynamism as deriving from trade liberalisation and exchange rate reform provides an inadequate framework for capturing all the elements that have been of determining importance.... Missing ...was the possibility that government intervention could accompany...the export oriented model. " If they say so...

Of claws and clubs

Not one of these East Asian countries could even remotely be described as a democracy. There is about as much political freedom in these countries as there is freedom of the market! From their inception as independent entities, they have been under the thumb of dictatorships.

Korea was given a US puppet, Syngman Rhee to rule it when they took the country from Japanese hands after World War II. On the principle of "he's a bastard, but at least he's our bastard", US advisors and their military supported his brutal regime for 14 years. In 1960 he was forced to resign after huge student-led demonstrations. There followed a US-sponsored military coup by General Park Chung Hee, in the name, predictably, of the struggle against "communism", leading to the jailing of thousands of activists. It was Park's regime which created the highly centralised, economic planning.

Park ruled for 18 years, winning four more fraudulent elections and depending to the end on imprisoning and torturing the opposition. In 1979 he was shot by his own Korean CIA chief and again, it wasn't long before yet another dictatorship was installed, under General Chun Doo Hwan despite huge uprisings in many cities against him.

In Kwangju, the population staged an armed uprising, holding the city for several days and it took a whole paratroopers division sent down from the border with North Korea with the US army's blessing, to drown this insurrection in blood. After a "purification campaign" during which all subversives were weeded out, Chun Doo Hwan staged the obligatory election which he of course won. Despite the brutality of this regime, activism grew against it and in 1987, with the coming hosting of the Olympic games Chun felt it would look better if he replaced himself with his friend, Roh Tae Woo - who also got himself officially elected with 42% of the vote. In the meantime, 45,000 US troops remained in Korea.

Singapore has been under the rule of the same so-called "Peoples' Action Party" since its independence, and the first Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, still sits behind the present Prime Minister as "senior statesman" and backseat driver. The authoritarianism of this state is well known. From the tight control of labour - both indigenous and immigrant through heavy restictions on unions, work visas, caning and prison sentences for any breach of immigration controls, to the petty laws which forbid chewing gum, throwing litter, eating in public places or on the bus or train and so on. The press is heavily censored - including all foreign magazines and newspapers. It has become quite ludicrous, to the point where, recently, journalists were taken to court under threat of 2-year prison sentences for leaking a forecast on economic growth. But as the interior minister pointed out in the Economist this month, after all "the Singapore Official Secrets Act ...is based on the British OSA of 1911-20... " Again, all is fair in love and the war against "communism". The first two opposition party members were elected in 1984. But soon one of them was thrown out after being taken to court for apparent perjury, despite the fact that he won the case. Today there are only four opposition MP's, elected in 1991 and the country is still run more or less like a one party state.

As to Taiwan, the Kuomintang dictatorship imposed a state of emergency for three decades - until this was formally lifted in 1987. Again the justification was the old "bulwark against communism" story. But to the population the description of China as a repressive one-party system could only sound remarkably like their own. Once it was officially allowed, opposition parties emerged into the daylight and in 1989 elections were held for the first time in Taiwan's history. The Kuomintang held onto power, but like in China, the old guard is literally dying out and so new aspiring dictators will probably soon take their places.

Conditions of the proletariat

It was on the back of the rural poor that the South East Asian Tigers rode onto the world market. They paid the price for it twice over - first by having their livelihoods torn away from them when the rural economy was ruined in order to feed the appetites of the urban bourgeoisie and for a period the US military. Then they paid again during their exodus to the cities where they provided the cheap labour for the growing industrialisation.

Today, overcrowding in Seoul, the world's fifth biggest city with 11 million inhabitants, has reached unprecedented proportions, despite the regime's grandiose building projects. In 1985, when it was not as bad as now, the poorest 30% of the population had an average 2 square metres per person and three families per house. It was common for one family to occupy one or two small rooms with three generations living together in this fashion. In 1989, 20% were living in illegal shanties on the outskirts of the city, the result of the "clean-up" evictions which preceded the 1988 Olympic games when 3.5m were pushed out of central slum areas.

In the electronics and textile plants women workers were recruited selectively: "Girls are prefered not only because their discipline is better, but also because female production wages are, on average, almost 50% of male wages. ", noted a study for the International Labour Organisation recently. One of the consequences has actually been a drastic decrease in the country's birth rate.

Recently a business magazine described life in the Bucheon electronic complex Seoul as follows: "Factory workers live mostly on ramyon - instant noodle soup. Out of a minimum wage of 122,000 won per month (£100), a worker has to pay rent (60-70,000 won average for a small flat), and water and heat (30,000 won average). The rest is spent for food. A movie or even a beer is rare, if not unthinkable luxury. "

Even Singapore, where poverty is not acknowleged officially, hides a grim reality behind the gossy veneer. When Singapore's slums or "kampongs" were cleared this actually led to a further impoverishment of the former slum dwellers who were removed to Government Housing Board, mostly high-rise flats. Here, poor families were faced with regular rents if not mortgages to pay - the state policy being to get them to own their own flats - and face all the bills for maintenance. One old ex-peasant resident summed it up: "Before, we used to be able to help each other fix the roof or mend the washing basin. Now we have to pay someone to come and do this. Before, we could keep a few ducks or chickens and grow some vegetables. Now we have to buy all our food. " So their already small disposable incomes went down even more. Children, instead of carrying on at school had to be sent out to work.

The lives of migrant workers are much worse. There on the strength of limited work permits, as soon as the labour market shrinks they are just kicked out. So their existance is insecure from day one. Thai construction workers - the bulk of the construction workforce, have to live in communal rooms in tin-roofed bunkhouses on site and much of their £5/day wage goes on paying off the debt incurred to the labour contractor who found them the job. Between '83 and '89 there were 200 documented cases of Thai construction workers dying in mysterious circumstances - most probably paying the final instalment on a debt they could not afford. And a migrant worker had better not try to marry a local woman. In the 1970's, permission to marry, which has to be applied for to the state, was made contingent on the signing of a "sterilization bond" which stipulated that husband and wife would both undergo sterilization after the birth of their second child.

Not surprisingly, the most extreme conditions are found in the poorest of these countries. The Philippines provides an example in the rapidly growing garment industry. Half of these firms are foreign owned, 30% by US companies. The industry employs about a quarter of a million full-time factory workers and another half a million who work at home. Home workers mainly work on a contractual basis fulfilling work orders placed with them by agents. The majority of the workers are women and their wage rates are less than one sixth that of Japanese rates. Of course these homeworkers are not covered by any labour laws, minimum wage legislation nor safety regulations. They are the cheapest workers one could possibly find. Women working all day sewing babywear earn just over 60p from which is subtracted the cost of thread as well as transport to and from the agent who commissions the work. Of course, the beauty of home-working labour is that reduced orders don't have to cost the companies anything - there is no lay-off pay, or redundancy agreements to cut into profits - it will only mean fewer meals on the tables of a few thousand homeworkers' families!

Workers' resistance in the Tigers' den

The working class of South East Asia is often described here as a model of efficiency, productivity and, above all, obedience. It was, we are told, their initial acceptance to sacrifice wages and conditions and their total devotion to the interests of their employers which were at the root of the tigers' industrial "success". To keep away unemployment and build affluence for the future, British workers should take a leaf out of the Tiger's workers' book, so we are told.

Indeed there are a few leaves that British workers could take out of the South East Asian workers' book, but not exactly the kind hailed by the capitalists here. For this image of submissiveness and resignation is just as much of a lie as that of the the Tigers' miraculous economic success story.

The working class of South East Asia has in fact a long tradition of political radicalism and resistance against exploitation. Indonesia, for instance, was the cradle of the first trade-union movement in the region and then, following in the steps of the Russian Revolution, of the first Asian Communist Party. In the thirties, Vietnam saw the development of a strong working-class based communist movement which came very close to threatening France's colonial domination over Indochina.

The humiliating defeats inflicted on all the colonial powers operating in the region - first on the European colonisers by Japan and then on Japan itself - gave a boost to the development of radical anti-colonial movements, most of which were based on the working class. In Malaysia, between 1945 and the end of 1948, the urban proletariat joined in with rubber plantation workers and tin miners in a three-year wave of militant strikes and confrontations. The then British Labour government retaliated with a bloody civil war. But it took six years and a full-blown army, numbering up to 380,000 in 1952, before the rebellion was finally crushed.

Korea was another stronghold of the postwar rebellion. The American troops had replaced the Japanese after their defeat. Their first move was to declare illegal the People's Republic which had just been proclaimed across Korea and to disband the People's Committees which had taken over the country after Japan's departure. The confrontation came in September 1946, when Chun Pyong - the General Council of Korean Trade Unions which organised over 200,000 workers - called a general strike against the US occupation and for workers' control over the economy. The US Marines moved in, shooting an undisclosed number of strikers and setting up concentration camps for the many thousands arrested. Sixteen union leaders were executed in the aftermath of the defeat. Two years later, when Chun Pyong was finally banned, most of its leading activists were either dead or in jail, and its membership had been reduced to 2,500. Subsequently, the partition of Korea and the Korean War did much to eradicate communist and socialist traditions for several generations.

Taiwan, on the other hand, was a different case. In 1947, the invasion of the island by Chiang Kai-shek's thugs and parasites triggered protests among the population. The Kuomintang lifted martial law and invited the opposition to set up "Settlement Committees" across the island. But once most opposition leaders were known, the Kuomintang went on the rampage with the USA's backing. Martial law was reinstated, up to 10,000 oppositionists were killed and nothing was left of the emerging political organisations.

Since this time, all the countries in the region have had in common extreme repression against any kind of independent working-class organisation. They all have some system of "recognised" unions. In some cases the unions are kept under direct state control - through a state bureaucracy like in Korea or through the ubiquitous political machinery of the Kuomintang in Taiwan. In other countries, like Malaysia and Indonesia, the only recognised unions are company unions. Others still, like Singapore, have a combination of both systems.

In all cases where there are legal unions, these are tightly integrated in the machinery of management if not in the machinery of the state, like in Singapore where the general secretary of the National Trade Union Congress has often been appointed to the Cabinet. Besides, to avoid any possible drift, the unions are usually banned from putting demands or negotiating agreements, except for the most secondary issues. For instance, in Taiwan, "excessive" wage demands are illegal just as collective wage bargaining is, while in Singapore, collective bargaining over redundancies, dismissal and allocation of duties is illegal.

However, the mere fact that these dictatorial regimes felt they had to cater for some form of union organisation, however tame, is in itself a recognition of the militant potential of the working class in this countries - a working class which was often young, recently uprooted from the rural areas and not yet used to wage slavery. And indeed, despite the repression and the tight watch kept on workers by the police and the state, over the past four decades real union organisations never ceased to develop using the most tiny loopholes left open by the system.

In Taiwan for instance, in the 80s, union activists developed a particular skill in catching out the system. Since the Kuomintang's control over the unions was largely based on stage-managed elections of all-powerful officials which usually took place during meetings involving only carefully selected card-carrying members, the activists of the new unions resorted to the "flood tactic", as they called it, which involved flooding the meetings with the largest possible numbers of ordinary workers who then proceeded to elect whoever they wanted, in line with the official rulebook - needless to say these were not the candidates selected by the Kuomintang. Simple as it sounds, the fact that this often involved a physical confrontation with the well-armed Kuomintang gangs outside the meeting hall meant a certain level of determination among workers.

Likewise, strikes are effectively illegal in most of these countries, either through a straigtforward ban like in Taiwan or through complicated systems of compulsory arbitration like in Singapore and Korea. There again Taiwanese workers showed their inventiveness. After the lifting of the state of emergency in 1987, strikes remained illegal. So on May 1st 1988, railway workers declared a "mass holiday" and closed down the network. Then, in August, the drivers of the main bus company staged a "23-day extended union meeting". By the end of that year there were strikes in every industries, still under all sorts of semi-legal pretexts. And even Ford, which had always resisted any kind of bargaining, was forced into a collective agreement whereby 5% of the company's profits was to be distributed to the workforce.

The Korean explosion

Among the main Tigers, South Korea has probably the most dictatorial regime together with the most lively working class movement.

Following the eradication of left traditions in the 40s and 50s, new attempts at organising workers came from church organisations like the Protestant Urban Industrial Mission and the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. Under their influence workers education clubs were organised and some independent unions were formed. However, the so-called "non-violent" tactics advocated by these religious groups had a number of detrimental effects, with activists resorting to hunger strikes or, worse, to self-immolation by fire. But from the early 70s, thanks to the efforts of these activists the fight for union independence became the focus of workers' struggle alongside the fight against the dictatorship.

In the early 80s, in Daewoo Motors, the union, as required by law, operated a closed-shop. Its leadership was controlled by the company. Every year shopfloor delegates were elected to instruct the union leadership on what they should demand from the company. And every year the union leadership agreed to anything the company said, wage rises were kept within government guidelines, that is well below inflation, and bonuses were promised but never paid. This was the normal setup to be expected in a chaebol's factory. In 1984, however, when the union leadership came back with a 5% rise instead of the 18.7% demanded by shopfloor delegates, 300 workers decided to take over the union, selected their own bargaining team and called a strike. Two thousand workers occupied the factory while eight thousand police surrounded it. Worried by this unusual development Daewoo's president stepped in and granted the strikers their demand. All this was illegal of course - the union takeover, the strike, the new round of bargaining and even Daewoo's agreeing to a larger pay rise. Of course, when the police stepped in after the agreement, they arrested the three union negotiatiors, not Daewoo's president. But a trend was set. In the process of the dispute, workers had set up their own "minju nojo" (democratic union) which had effectively taken over from the official union.

That minju nojos had become a major factor in working class organisation became visible three years later. In June 1987, the dictator's heir apparent, Roh Tae Woo, who was standing in the presidential election, pledged to restore all basic rights if he was elected. This sent ripples across the country. Within four months 3400 labour disputes had erupted. Whithin a year 2799 local unions had sprang to existence, involving over half a million new members, and the numbers of new unions was to reach over 7000 by the end of 1989, involving sectors of the economy were unions had been so far unheard of, like white-collar workers and government employees. There were strikes in over two-thirds of the factories employing more than a thousand workers. All the chaebols were affected.

What happened in Hyundai's complex at Ulsan was typical of this wave of strikes. Ulsan was a Hyundai company town where 80,000 workers were employed in twelve Hyundai factories. Hyundai was notorious for its refusal of any union, legal or not, for its company haircut and uniform. To use the words of a Financial Times journalist, Hyundai was run as a "boot camp ". On 6 July 1987, 120 workers in the Hyundai Engine plant registered a union with the office of Labour Affairs, the first ever to be organised in a Hyundai plant.

Within days similar moves were made in two other Ulsan factories. But Hyundai was quick to react, resorting to a trick commonly used by employers: when the workers went to register their new union, they were told that a union had already been registered hours before by some management sponsored employees. As the law provided that only one union could exist in any single factory, that was the end of the matter. Except that this time workers in Hyundai Motors and Heavy Industries plants went on strike over the issue throughout July. Meanwhile minju nojos were being set up in every Ulsan factory and a coordinating body was set up covering all twelve plants in Ulsan. In mid-August, Hyundai retaliated to the on-going unrest by declaring a lock-out in six of its twelve factories. This led to a town-wide strike with huge marches and repeated confrontations with the police. Finally the state stepped in, all the minju nojos as well as their coordinating body were declared illegal and twenty union leaders were jailed.

For the following twelve months or so, the status quo remained. There were on-going skirmishes, stoppages, street scuffles with the police. Hyundai recruited members of the far-right Anti-Communist Youth League to serve as security guards in the town and a "kusadae" ("save the company group") was set up in each factory, involving mostly workers who had served in the Korean Marines. These groups were given military training, special equipment and were told to get busy sorting out troublemakers. Then, in January 1989, following an attack by management-hired thugs against a union meeting, the whole complex of Ulsan was brought to a standstill. It lasted 104 days. This only ended when, on 30 March, 14,000 police brought in by land, sea and air, flooded the factories. It was a stalemate and although Hyundai management forced the democratic unions underground, they failed to eradicate them.

Millions of workers and youth were involved in the strike wave and street battles of the late 80s. Having no real tradition and no national political organisation capable of giving the movement clear objectives, let alone of turning the many local struggles into a single common struggle, the movement failed. The national union which had emerged from the local minju nojos, Chonnohyop, was banned for "leading a vicious conflict with an ideology of class struggle for the liberation of labour " and its leaders were jailed. But the way to victory is always paved by temporary defeats. And no amount of legal bans can eradicate the sense of dignity and strength experienced by hundreds of thousands during these two years, nor the tradition of organisation which they built.

The only future of capitalism - barbarism

When Reagan made his 1985 speech about America's economic success being "repeated a hundred times in a hundred nations", he had probably read a confidential report produced the year before by the CIA's Office of Global Issues which read: "The change in the composition of the newly industrialised countries will more likely be the result of a country falling from its rank rather than advancing to the status of an industrial country. " Behind the official language, the CIA's diagnosis was unmistakable - no way could any of the Tigers develop into a fully-fledged industrialised economy, but there was a possibility for them to fall back to their original status of Third World countries. Of course, the CIA's report was never published and when it was eventually leaked, the Western media showed no interest in giving it any publicity.

The real question posed by the Tigers' so-called economic "miracle" is not whether they indicate a possible future for capitalism and humanity. They do not. The real question is rather how long it will take for imperialism to squeeze as much sweat, blood and tears as it can from the working classes of these countries before it disposes of them like old rags on the dumping grounds of the Third World.

Whole civilisations were destroyed in the past by the greed for precious metals of European conquistadores. Later, whole rural economies were destroyed by the colonial powers to boost the profits of Western food giants - much of the starvation in Africa today is due to the criminal exhaustion of the land by the industrial crops they forced the populations to farm.

Today, imperialism has invented another more sophisticated means of squeezing profits out of the poorest regions of the world. Whole countries are being turned into labour camps guarded by military regimes armed and trained by the imperialist states. And while dozens of women workers were burnt alive recently in the blaze of a Chinese factory, because they were locked in to make cheap toys for sale in American or British supermarkets, politicians here are cynical and arrogant enough to tell us that this is the future of humanity!

Capitalism invented the forced labour of the concentration camps of fascism in Germany. It invented the forced labour of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Now it is promoting the forced labour of the Asian tigers. There is no limit to the forms of slavery it can invent to exploit human labour. Capitalism has long ceased to have anything to offer to mankind. The longer it is allowed to carry on, the closer it brings the world to barbarism.

Fortunately, mankind has an unlimited capacity for rebellion that no form of slavery, however vicious, has ever managed to contain. The chains of the working class are the same throughout the world. If the Hyundai workers in Korea can shake their chains, then surely we, here, in the relative safety and comfort of Britain, can do as much and in fact more. In this rebellion lies the only future and the only hope of a better world for the whole of humanity.